Article: Mystic – Making by L.P. Elwell-Sutton | The New York Review of Books

Mystic – Making by L.P. Elwell-Sutton | The New York Review of Books

Mystic – Making by L.P. Elwell-Sutton

The publication in the United States, hard on one another’s heels, of three books on Sufism is a reminder of the current resurgence of Western interest in this branch of the “Wisdom of the East,” an interest that marks the final phase of this twelve-hundred-year-old Islamic mystical teaching. Its origins and sources are indeed veiled in the mists of history. Mysticism is characteristic of most Eastern religions, perhaps—since essentially it means “direct knowledge of God”—of all religions. In this sense the Prophet Muhammad and his followers in the seventh century A.D. could be said to have been mystics; but this still fell far short of Sufism.

The mysticism of the early Muslims meant little more than an ascetic way of life, a withdrawal from or at least an avoidance of worldly and material pleasures that followed logically from the spiritual nature of the creed revealed to and taught by Muhammad. It was therefore a consequence, almost a by-product, of their religious faith, the central theme of which was the humble worship of the One, Omnipotent, Remote but All-protecting God, who communicated with man only through His Prophet. This is still a long way from the close intimate contact between man and God that the Sufis believed possible and sought to achieve.

The rapid expansion of the Arab empire during the seventh and eighth centuries A.D. brought the possibility and indeed the reality of undreamed-of wealth to the simple-minded conquerors from the desert, and it was scarcely surprising that the majority, including their rulers, should have succumbed to worldly temptation. Most characteristic of this trend were the Umayyad Caliphs, successors to the four “Orthodox Caliphs” who directly followed in time and in conduct the Prophet himself. Their regime was marked by the great cleavage between the Sunni supporters of the Umayyads, who based their power on popular, that is, tribal backing, and the Shi’a legitimists who favored the claims of the lineal descendants of Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet.

NYR / NYR Tote Bag


At the same time the blatant materialism of the ruling house alienated the many pious adherents of Islam who were not yet prepared to endorse the un-Arab, undemocratic theories of legitimism, and took refuge instead in the ascetic way of life. One of the most famous of these ascetics was Hasan of Basra (d. 728), and it is interesting that the first extant reference to the wearing by ascetics of wool (suf) occurs in his writings. We can scarcely doubt that this practice gave rise to the nickname Sufi first applied to these ascetics and later to the followers of the mystical way of life that derived, under various external influences, from the practice of asceticism. While one must treat with respect anything written by Professor Henry Corbin, it is a little surprising to find him arguing in his latest work (p. 30) in favor of the derivation of the word from the Greek sophos, “sage.” Greek influence on the movement was surely of a later date, and the fact that this popular etymology was favored by the Sufis of the tenth and eleventh centuries is evidence of little more than a desire to find a more dignified origin for the name.

The metamorphosis of the simple asceticism of the early Muslims into the gnostic mysticism of the medieval Sufis began during the ninth century. By this time the Islamic empire was in contact at one extreme with the Buddhists of Central Asia and India, and at the other with the Hellenistic Christians of Asia Minor and Syria. From these sources came such ideas as macrifa (gnosis, direct knowledge of God), dhikr (the discipline of repeatedly mentioning the Name of God), hal (the mystic state), wahdat al-wujud (the unity of creation, even pantheism), and so on.

Nevertheless a century was to pass before Sufism became the dominant way of thought in Islam. Islam was first to go through the era of rationalism and skepticism, the period of the great scientists—Rhazes, Avicenna, Averroës. And in reaction orthodoxy, intolerant and obscurantist, was hitting out equally at free rationalist thought and free irrationalist thought. But whereas the scientists had little choice but to retreat and submit, the mystics—less afraid of persecution and death—reacted in extremist conduct unthought of by their predecessors. Dhu’l-Nun of Egypt (d. 861) was among the first to address God in the extravagant language of the infatuated lover. The Persian Bayazid of Bistam (d. 875), exclaiming “Glory to Me! How great is My Majesty!” found God within himself, thus anticipating Mansur ibn Hallaj, whose ecstatic cry “I am the Truth!” led to his crucifixion for blasphemy in 922. Asceticism was beginning to take a secondary place; and during the tenth century there even appeared a sect, the Malamatiya or “Blameworthy Ones,” who welcomed the contempt and disgust of their fellow men as evidence of their own true devotion to God, and to earn them indulged in behavior the very opposite of ascetic.

A further contributing factor to the spread of interest in the mystical life was the political and social disorder that prevailed throughout the Islamic world at this time. Autocratic rulers, marauding armies, sudden changes of fortune, the instability of human affairs in high places and low, made the path of withdrawal from the world all the more tempting. Already there were many who voluntarily chose the wandering life of the dervish, a life all the more easy to adopt if it had the sanction of religion.

Side by side with this extremism we find another increasingly important strand of thought. As rationalism and free thought became increasingly frowned on by authority, their practitioners turned their analytical minds toward the solution of unworldly matters. Sufism, in danger of being discredited as an immoral way of life and stamped out as a heresy and a threat to authority, was ready to be rescued and rehabilitated. A series of theoretical writers, mostly trained in the theological and juridical sciences, culminated in the great theologian and philosopher al-Ghazali (d. 1111). Ghazali began life as an orthodox theologian, but at the age of forty experienced a spiritual crisis and became converted to the Sufi way of life. Thereafter he conceived it as his task to complete the reconciliation of Sufism with orthodox Islamic theology, a task carried out in a series of works still widely read to the present day.

With the return of the prodigal to the ancestral home, some of the excitement went out of the Sufi movement. Inevitably orthodoxy brought with it systematization and institutionalization. So far as its theoretical structure is concerned, Sufism did not advance much after Ghazali. The stages of the Sufi Way were plotted for all to see, and subsequent writers only added points of detail. The aspirant was told that he must first pass through the seven maqamat or Stages, beginning with repentance or conversion and passing through asceticism and poverty to patience and trust in God. These stages must be reached by his own efforts; once he has purified himself in this way, he is ready to receive as the gifts of God the ten mystical States (halat)—self-observation, realization of the Nearness of God, love, fear, hope, yearning, familiarity with God, serene dependence on Him, contemplation of the Vision of the Almighty, and finally the certainty of Union with Him.

This somewhat lengthy introduction leads us to the consideration of one of the greatest of all Sufis, Ibn cArabi (1165-1240), the subject of Professor Corbin’s book. Hitherto Ibn cArabi has been felt to be one of the least comprehensible of the mystical writers. The late Professor A. J. Arberry wrote of his “extraordinary complexity, not to say confusion, of mental outlook, which renders his writings so very baffling to the student, and so intractable to the translator.” Yet he agreed with Professor Corbin’s view that Ibn cArabi made a vital and unique contribution to the development of Sufism and Shi’ism in the East and in Iran especially. It would be too much to say—and more than he himself would claim—that Professor Corbin has fully illuminated what was once obscure. As he himself writes (p. 4): “The time for an over-all interpretation is far off…. [O]ur design is limited to meditating in depth…on certain themes which run through the work as a whole….”

Professor Corbin’s book, as one would expect from a man who is both a profound scholar and a committed Sufi adept, is not easy reading, and the novice’s approach to it is not helped by a somewhat slavishly literal translation from the French—though in extenuation it must be said that to achieve a more interpretative rendering would be a formidable task not to be lightly undertaken. The meat of the book is contained in two long essays that were originally given as lectures at the Eranos conference at Ascona in Switzerland in 1955 and 1956. These bear the titles “Sympathy and Theopathy” and “Creative Imagination and Creative Prayer,” and consist of an analysis of Ibn cArabi’s thought as contained in his writings, particularly in his two most important prose works, the Fusus al-Hikam (“The Gems of Wisdom”) and the monumental Kitab al-Futuhat al-Makkiya (“Book of the Spiritual Conquests of Mecca”). To these essays is prefixed an extremely interesting introductory section summing up the state of mystical knowledge and teaching at the time of Ibn cArabi’s entry upon the scene.

It would be an impertinence to attempt to summarize Professor Corbin’s book, but perhaps it may be of interest to pick out one or two of his salient points. He starts from the moment of Ibn cArabi’s departure for the East at the age of thirty-five from his home city of Córdoba, a move which Professor Corbin sees as symbolizing the breach between the teaching of Aristotle as interpreted by Averroës, which found favor in the western Islamic world and in Europe and led to the separation and conflict between theology and philosophy, and the neo-Platonic Avicennan school of thought, with its idea of the batin (hidden reality) underlying the zahir (external symbols of the material world). Though Ibn cArabi never reached Iran in his travels, he encountered the westward flow of Iranian thought moving under pressure from the Mongol invasions, particularly in the teachings of his contemporary Suhrawardi, a much neglected figure in the story of Islamic Sufism whose Hikmat al-Ishraq (Theosophy of Light) was a development of Avicennism blended with Zoroastrian doctrines.

The concept of the hidden reality beneath the surface led naturally to the idea of an intermediate world between God and man, the world of the Holy Spirit, of the Active Intelligence or Creative Imagination. The Spiritual Man who, by following the path of the Sufi, attains to knowledge of this ‘alam-i mithal (the world of real and subsistent images), sees God, not directly (for that is impossible) but through the Holy Spirit—symbolized for some by the mysterious figure of Khidr. Such a man becomes a nabi (prophet) able to practice ta’wil (the interpretation of the symbols of the material world). Here we come to the link with Iranian Shi’ism, with its doctrine of the Hidden Imam and of ijtihad (interpretation of the Law), and to the Sufi hierarchy of saints and spiritual guides.

Ibn cArabi also lays much stress on the doctrine of opposites. As light can only be known in contrast to darkness, so good can only be known in relation to evil. The form under which the Spiritual knows God is also the form under which God knows the man, under which God makes Himself known to Himself in that man. This is the explanation of the saying attributed to God: “I was a hidden treasure, and I desired to be known; therefore I created the creation in order that I might be known.” From this one comes naturally to the concept of Divine Love, the love of the Creator for the created and of the created for the Creator, which is indeed the love of the Creator for Himself, since man is the earthly manifestation of God and is therefore always seeking to return to Him. The Spiritual Man who passes through all the stages of this heavenward path becomes the Perfect Man (Insan-i Kamil).

Enough has been said to show the importance of love in this framework of thought. Professor Corbin draws a parallel between the Lovers of Sufi teaching and the fedeli d’amore of Dante’s Divina Commedia. Whether there is a historical connection between them, or whether they are talking independently about the same phenomenon, is an open question, and one that it is hardly necessary to answer. What is important is that the main features that distinguished the later Sufis from their ascetic predecessors of the ninth and tenth centuries were the emotion of love and the adoration of beauty. The ascetics, having never experienced human love, could not experience divine love. It fell to the poet to discover this way, and it is not surprising that Iranian Sufism inspired some


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s